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THE GREAT DIVIDE

Superintendent Brenda Cassellius isn’t the only Boston school administrator working without a proper license

Now, they’re scrambling to get licensed.

Boston Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius arrived at Compass Technical Institute on Aug. 14 to take her test.
Boston Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius arrived at Compass Technical Institute on Aug. 14 to take her test.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

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More than 15 Boston Public Schools administrators — including key lieutenants of Superintendent Brenda Cassellius — have been working without the proper state licenses, some of them for years, a Globe review has found, underscoring widespread lapses in verifying the credentials of top school leaders.

Now, several administrators are scrambling to get their licenses while others obtained them after the Globe began asking questions. The Globe review found that the most senior official without a required state license following Cassellius was Nathan Kuder, who has served as the system’s chief financial officer since August 2019 and oversees a $1.3 billion budget. He just applied for his license.

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In many cases, a Boston school spokesman said the department had no idea that the positions required a specific license or any kind of administrator license at all, even though the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has extensively documented the requirements on its website.

The spokesman, Jonathan Palumbo, said Boston schools will add someone to its personnel department whose sole job will be to make sure staffers have the appropriate licenses required by state law.

The findings follow an earlier Globe report that revealed that Cassellius allowed her own superintendent’s license to expire on July 31 after she failed to take a mandatory exam during the two-year period within which she was required to do so, making her the only superintendent in the state without a valid license. The state extended her temporary license and she took the exam earlier this month, but several of her lieutenants have never had licenses, putting them in apparent violation of state law.

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State licenses, which are required for teachers and administrators alike, are intended to document that professionals have the right qualifications for their jobs and they’ve passed a test of basic skills.

The Globe found numerous central office administrators as well as school principals who either don’t have the proper licenses or obtained them later than they should have. A few, including chief of schools Corey Harris and interim chief of support services Neva Coakley-Grice only recently applied for licenses.

Palumbo said Cassellius wants to make sure all administrators have the right credentials.

“Boston Public Schools (BPS) is working to ensure all members of the Superintendent’s executive team possess the appropriate licenses for their positions,” Palumbo said in a statement. “We remain in contact with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to confirm our understanding of the requirements related to positions and to action-plan next steps.”

The individual administrators and principals with licensing issues either declined to comment or did not respond to interview requests.

Some observers questioned how BPS administrators could be unaware of the state’s licensing requirements, which have been around for decades.

Nearly everyone from public school teachers to superintendents needs the appropriate license under state law, including officials who deal with school finance. All of them must pass a basic exam, known as the Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure or MTEL communication and literacy skills test. Once they’ve taken the basic test, they don’t need to take it again for future licenses or renewals.

But there’s a range of additional requirements for positions from teacher up to senior administrator, which include documenting relevant years of experience and, for the most advanced licenses, a performance assessment and a program with a mentor.

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Cassellius, who came from Minnesota in 2019, received a temporary one-year license to give her time to pass the MTEL and apply for a full license. The COVID crisis in 2020 prompted state officials to extend expiring licenses to July 31.

Cassellius had been warned by the state education department this year that her license would expire at the end of July if she did not pass the MTEL, which she took on Aug. 14, after a Globe article. Most of the other administrators without licenses never had them, so it’s unlikely state education officials would have contacted them.

A state education spokeswoman said it is a school district’s responsibility to know which positions require licenses and to make sure the employees get them.

“It’s well known that building principals and administrators have had to be licensed for a long time,” said Sandra Stotsky, who as the state associate education commissioner from 1993 until 2003 was in charge of revising or developing licensing standards for teachers and administrators.

“We have licenses to protect children from incompetent teachers and principals. We have to have a licensure system that makes sure they have met the minimum competency requirement for whatever they are. We did this to protect children.”

But Paul Reville, a professor at Harvard School of Education and a former state education secretary, said proper licensing doesn’t necessarily translate into better student performance.

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“Some of the most elite schools in the nation don’t require teachers to be credentialed,” he said. “Elite independent schools don’t have licensed teachers or administrators.”

Reville said he agrees that teachers and principals should be licensed, but he said the case is less clear when it comes to central office bureaucrats.

“Does anyone really believe literacy problems are impeding [Cassellius’s] performance as superintendent?” he said.

State education officials began notifying Boston school officials that several administrators needed licenses as early as February, but it wasn’t until the Globe raised questions earlier this month that Cassellius and many of her lieutenants moved to get their credentials in order.

Assistant Superintendent Daphné Germain, for example, got a license on Aug. 13 and chief of accountability Eva Mitchell got hers on Aug. 12.

A third administrator, Elia Bruggeman, one of the system’s high school superintendents who came from Minnesota with Cassellius two years ago, just secured an emergency license in June. Under state rules, she was supposed to have obtained an assistant superintendent’s license by the time she began her new job.

Another senior administrator, Andrea Zayas, worked in a variety of positions over the last three years without any kind of educator license in Massachusetts, including chief academic officer, which put her in charge of all teaching and learning across the district. Zayas left the district this summer.

Cassellius was allowed to continue working with her temporary license while she awaited the results of her MTEL, expected no later than Sept. 13. Until then, a deputy will sign off on any decisions that require the signature of a licensed superintendent.

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To a degree, the array of licensing problems among BPS leadership reflects the frequent turnover among top administrators and principals. A state review released in March 2020 found that only six of 51 executives who appeared in a leadership chart in 2016 still held the same job in October 2019. The churn has only continued under Cassellius, who has repeatedly reorganized her leadership team while principal turnover has remained high.

The 2020 state report found that the constant leadership turnover is undermining efforts to overhaul the schools and to boost performance in nearly three dozen schools that rank in the bottom 10 percent statewide.

In his statement, Palumbo said that some of the unlicensed officials identified by the Globe were new to their positions.

But the Globe found several administrators who were not new to their posts and clearly required licenses, yet allowed years to pass before getting one. Shammah Daniels, principal of the Blackstone School since 2019, just got a license in March 2021. Camila Hernandez has been principal of the Sarah Greenwood School since 2019, but just got an emergency license in March 2021.

One longtime principal, Benjamin Rockoff of the Ellison Parks Early Education School, has a teacher’s license but not the required principal’s license, state records showed. Palumbo said Rockoff applied for a principal’s license in 2017, but didn’t say why he didn’t get one.

Boston Public Schools officials initially argued that some unlicensed administrators — including Faye Karp, the executive director of the English Learners program, and Jason Sachs, executive director of Boston’s Early Childhood Education program — don’t require a license for their posts.

But state officials on Monday confirmed that Karp and Sachs do indeed need licenses. Karp applied for a license on Aug. 20, state officials said.

Edward M. Lambert, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, said it’s important not to portray the licensing problems at BPS as paperwork problems. He said having properly credentialed educators matters.

“We should have standards for our educators. We certainly have standards for our students,” Lambert said. “The best schools and school districts are those that have high expectations for their students. You can’t deliver on the promise of high expectations if you don’t meet the standards that parents and the community expect from their educators.”


Andrea Estes can be reached at andrea.estes@globe.com. James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.